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Buying the Final Frontier

Outer space was supposed to belong to all humankind. Should we surrender it to anyone who can pay up?

By Philip Ball

SpaceX launched a Tesla roadster into space during a 2018 demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Crass? Inspiring? Both? [Credit: SpaceX]

Hands up: Who thought it was cool that Captain James T. Kirk (aka Canadian actor William Shatner) got to go into space for real at the age of 90—and, at the same time, thought the flight itself was a ghastly PR exercise for Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space business?

Hands up: Who feels awed watching Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rockets land on floating drone ships at sea—and simultaneously horrified at the plans of the world’s richest person to use such technology to commercialize space and allegedly to build private colonies on Mars?

I know I’m not alone in struggling with such cognitive dissonance after moments like the Shatner flight. “I hated it on one level and thought it was cool on the other,” says planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency, admits that sometimes he refuses to watch feats of virtuoso spacefaring from the new space barons, lest he get sucked in by their superficial glamour. It is not just sour grapes about the cool things they get to do with their wealth. It’s about the scientific, social, and philosophical implications of what they are doing and how they are doing it.

Many of us grew up on the excitement and allure of space, inspired by Captain Kirk’s mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and by NASA’s heroic Apollo moon landings. We were taught to anticipate lunar bases, gigantic rotating space stations, and settlements on Mars. Later, even when we came to recognize that the Apollo program was a product of Cold War belligerence, we didn’t want to lose those childhood dreams of breaking free from Earth’s gravity and voyaging to the stars. Nor should we: The person who is indifferent to the sublime wonders of the cosmos is blind to a crucial part of the mystery of the human condition.

The new space race pursued by the likes of Bezos, Musk, and Virgin’s Richard Branson taps into that same thirst for inspiration and transcendence. Their companies are pushing the limits of technology in remarkable ways. At the same time, there is something deeply unsettling about the space barons’ capitalist swagger. They measure the grandeur of space in terms of dollars and Bitcoin. They look out into the cosmic expanse and see another frontier for business expansion, ripe for profit-making colonies, mining operations, and satellite swarms.

This is where the dissonance kicks in. A deep tension exists between the notions of space as a place of wonder and as a resource. Our yearnings for what space represents are being exploited to justify vanity projects that risk undermining a genuine fascination and respect for the universe beyond our planet.

Perhaps, you might say, we shouldn’t be put off by the braggadocio, mistreatment of staff, tax dodging, and all-around smugness of the space tycoons. We aren’t meant to like them; it’s all part of their performative “hubristic genius” shtick. “You might not like them, but we need them!” the argument goes. Well, let’s consider the reality behind some of the popular ways people defend the space barons.

“These companies are developing useful technology for serious space science.”

A popular idea is that companies like Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin will advance space technology by being more ambitious and flexible than purely state-driven efforts. NASA or other public agencies provide funding and set the overall goals; then the private companies can figure out the best way to achieve them. Such public–private collaborations have had some notable successes—most recently in the development of Covid vaccines. The payoff of this approach for space science is by no means obvious, however.

The low-cost, reusable rockets that SpaceX has developed with the support of government contracts make a big difference in your budget if your payload is cheap, McCaughrean notes. Not coincidentally, cheap payloads are the kinds of things Musk is interested in, like the assembly-line internet satellites of his Starlink project. Or like human beings, “so cheap that they’ll pay for themselves to go,” McCaughrean says. But big scientific payloads like the James Webb Space Telescope are not cheap at all. The priority for them is the most reliable rocket, and even a major cut in launch costs won’t have much effect, proportionally speaking, on the bottom line.

Neither is it obvious that the money NASA has given to Musk and company could not have been equally well used by a public agency that was similarly set loose to innovate. “The U.S. is giving massive government grants to Musk and Bezos,” says Mary-Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University, author of the forthcoming book Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. “Why not not? It’s that Reagan-ish thinking that if you let the wealthiest pursue whatever they want to, eventually it will benefit everyone else.”

“OK, but it doesn’t do any harm to serious space science.”

Anyone who thinks that Musk’s priorities align neatly with the needs of space science should ask astronomers what they think of his 1,500 or so active Starlink satellites that are now obstructing the view of telescopes with bright streaks and raising concerns about radio-signal interference. Starlink has filed plans to launch up to 42,000 satellites in total—about five times the total number currently orbiting Earth—and competing services like Amazon’s Project Kuiper plan to add thousands more. There are already 1,600 close encounters in space (within 1 kilometer) a week from Musk’s satellites, risking collisions that could strew debris in low Earth orbit.

“There was a time when I was enthusiastic about commercial space because I saw it as a possible way we could conduct more science,” Porco says. She now concludes that this is not the way it will work. “When you put science, and the way science needs to be conducted, up against commercial interests, the two make very bad bedfellows.”

From the start, human spaceflight has tapped into familiar old narratives of expansion, entitlement, and conquest.

The ostentatiousness of private spaceflight could also tar the public perception of space exploration as a whole. It would be foolish of space researchers and advocates to suppose that the rest of humankind—beset with disease, poverty, climate change, and political oppression—shares their positive feelings for the value of the enterprise. “The danger with all of this is that we look so detached, so removed from reality, that people say, ‘You’re all just lunatic fantasists. Why should we give you any money?’ ” says McCaughrean.

“Commercial space ventures provide inspiration.”

One of the most disturbing aspects of the private space race is how readily its capitalistic impulse can exploit the romantic fantasies of voyage and discovery that have always impelled human spaceflight. Even as Bezos has created an earthly empire worth more than the GDP of Spain—an empire that has exempted itself from the normal rules of commerce—he beguiles us with false promises of democratic travel to other worlds.

In reality, the story that the entrepreneurs are selling intensifies a disturbing antidemocratic aspect to spaceflight that has been there all along. From the start, human spaceflight has tapped into old religious and nationalistic narratives of expansion, entitlement, and conquest, as Rubenstein’s forthcoming book explains. For example, a 1986 “vision statement” by the U.S. National Commission on Space, whose members included Neil Armstrong, declared that “the promise of virgin lands and the opportunity to live in freedom brought our ancestors to the shores of North America,” making it very clear which subsection of the U.S. population it was addressing. “The settlement of North America and other continents,” it went on, “was a prelude to humanity’s greater challenge: the space frontier.”

If you buy into the notion that human settlement of space is part of our (a very selective “our”) manifest destiny, then perhaps the commercialization of spaceflight and proposals to mine asteroids for profit create no discomfort. But for many scientists and space enthusiasts, efforts to privatize the solar system hijack our well-founded sense of awe about space. “The commercial space people have hacked for profiteering reasons those feelings of exaltation we all feel at the thought of space travel,” Porco says. “What better hack could there be but to send Captain Kirk into space?”

“We need to get into space to survive, and these guys are taking the first steps.”

Shatner returned shaken from his Blue Origin flight. The voyages of the starship Enterprise were meant to be mythic, not realistic: Its cosmos was full of adventure as well as hazard and positively teeming with life. That’s not what Shatner found in space. Instead, he spoke of how the beautiful blue of Earth’s atmosphere vanished in an instant as he ascended. “You’re looking into blackness . . . there’s the blue down there, and the black up there.” At that moment, he realized a basic truth about space: “This is life, and that’s death.”

“The moment he got out there, he woke up,” Rubenstein says. Shatner’s comments weren’t exactly on message for the planetary-settlement crowd, she notes: “The tension between the optics and the text of the revelation grew so intense that Bezos interrupted Shatner to pop the cork off a bottle of champagne.”

As Shatner recognized, space is not filled with bountiful islands that we can reach if only we have the resolve and the technology to cross the forbidding ocean. It is a place of unrelenting emptiness, terror, and peril. It’s hard to swallow Musk’s pitch of Mars as a safeguard for human survival when we don’t yet know if we can get anyone there at all, much less keep them alive self-sufficiently. The even more extravagant promise that Mars could be made a habitable oasis by terraforming—transforming its atmosphere to warm it and to support breathable air and liquid water—is “almost certainly impossible,” says Porco.

“People get so wrapped up in wish-fulfilment fantasies about living on Mars that they lose context completely, as if you can just fly away and leave all our troubles behind. It doesn’t solve any problems by going to Mars,” McCaughrean adds. For the goal of survival, we would be much smarter using our knowledge and resources to keep Earth habitable in the face of the inadvertent geoengineering we are already conducting here.

What is frustrating about the efforts of the space barons is that they contrast clever feats of engineering with impoverished acts of imagination. Hidden behind their lofty language and populist promises, Rubenstein says, lies a banal rationale: “If we want to keep living as we do, the only thing we can do is find some other place to exploit.”

Space agencies in the United States, Europe, China, Canada, Japan, India, and elsewhere are showing different ways to establish an uplifting, shared presence in space—without business, and without people. The James Webb Space Telescope, now orbiting the sun a million miles from Earth, is opening the most powerful artificial eye on the cosmos we’ve ever had. Robotic missions will soon fly over the hydrocarbon dunes of Titan and investigate the ice-covered oceans of Europa.

We might plausibly extend that approach to an international, crewed research base on the moon. But we don’t need space tourism and private industry to get it. This doesn’t mean that big commercial ventures should be banned. But we should be more clear-eyed about their motives and priorities and consider how much we want their already ubiquitous presence in our lives to expand into the heavens too, with barely any regulation to constrain them.

Even if you feel in your marrow that our human destiny lies in the stars, you might want to look closely at what the space billionaires have done down here. Then ask yourself whether they are the best people to take us up there.

April 7, 2022

Philip Ball

is a freelance science writer, book author, and former physics editor at the journal Nature. He has a doctorate in physics from the University of Bristol. His book The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination was published in 2021 by the University of Chicago Press.

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